By Ambassador of Greece to the United States, Vassilis Kaskarelis, Wall Street Journal
It’s been a good month for Greece and the European Union.
The Greek government, the leaders of the EU, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed on a landmark economic adjustment program geared toward strengthening Greece’s institutional capacity, improving competitiveness, and creating sustainable growth. In addition, an unprecedented “haircut” deal with private-sector lenders clears the way for the release of loans from Europe and the IMF, thus placing Greece well on the path to recovery.
What many Americans may remember most, however, are images of rioting blazing across their television screens. Unseen and underreported is the real story: some of the furthest-reaching and most historic changes to any economy in modern history, aiming not only at fiscal consolidation but also at profound structural reform of an antiquated, overburdened and inefficient bureaucracy that has stifled competitiveness, innovation and productivity for decades. And if Greece’s long history is any indication, the country will emerge from this process stronger, healthier and more productive.
In the past two years, Greece achieved the largest fiscal consolidation in the euro zone by implementing the toughest austerity measures ever applied, slashing salaries and pensions by 20%-50% to reduce expenditures, imposing huge tax hikes, and significantly cutting public services and benefits.
Greece leads the way in structural reforms—ahead of other crisis-threatened countries, as reported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—with new laws enacted and implemented every day. These include significant reforms in the labor market, the liberalization of 108 restricted professions, a complete restructuring of the health-care system, an overhaul of the tax system with harsh consequences for tax evasion, reforms of local government administration, restructuring and waste-cutting in public enterprises, and the establishment of monitoring mechanisms for enhanced financial supervision. These measures are unprecedented and revolutionary.
To say this is difficult would be an understatement. It requires unwavering determination by Greek political leaders and tremendous sacrifice on the part of the Greek people, whose daily lives have been deeply affected. Social phenomena such as homelessness and unemployment have risen to levels unknown to Greece since World War II.
The situation is further exacerbated by the daily influx onto Greek shores of thousands of impoverished and displaced people—refugees and illegal immigrants desperate to escape conflict and poverty in Northern Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and elsewhere—significantly increasing Greece’s population practically overnight and testing the country’s capacity to the limit.
Yet, with limited resistance, the Greek people endure. Despite propounded stereotypes regarding Southern Europeans—which are flatly negated by the facts—the Greek people are resourceful and hardworking, a quality validated by Eurostat and OECD figures clearly indicating that Greeks work longer hours than anyone in the EU, including Germans. They also have strong values, placing great importance on family, education and public service. The thriving, prosperous and well-educated Greek communities found throughout the U.S. and around the world are testament to these attributes.
The creativity of the Greek people is being unleashed as deregulation, valuable EU know-how and development funds, and simplified investment processes are opening new avenues for exploiting untapped resources in fields from solar and wind renewable energy to tourism, food and beverages, life sciences and waste management. Drilling for gas is already under way on the Ionian Sea and the southern coast of Crete.
With much soul searching and realistic assessment over the past two years, both Greece and its European partners have honored their responsibilities and obligations to themselves and to each other, as part of a unified community of shared values. Greece and Europe are engaged in a trajectory of reform and evolution toward a more perfect union, with Greece determined to deliver on the promises and commitments its government has made to its partners and supporters.